Understanding What Makes VR Special

I’m a big fan of cubism. My aesthetic could be described as “got bored halfway through making a fruit salad.” My big brother, a natural artist, had a knack for realism that fully eluded me. A few years back, when I was cleaning out my old room as an adult, I ran across a drawing of his that I distinctly remember. It was the most vivid and realistic drawing of ninja turtles that, as a worldly eight-year-old, I had ever seen. Somehow, over the years, realism had betrayed him. What passed for real in 1980 now looked like it had been drawn by a ten-year-old.

To leverage virtual reality in business, the experience has to be convincing. Technology solutions and ninja turtle drawings have one thing in common: what seemed real ten, five, even two years ago doesn’t cut it anymore. These past two years have been a watershed moment for VR, with exciting but incremental improvements on the horizon.

Key to the modern era of virtual reality is the ability to track a user’s position, called six degrees of freedom, or 6DoF for short. A tracked headset means users can walk around and see that motion reflected in the virtual world; but more importantly, a tracked handheld controller allows users to interact in three-dimensional space. Previous rotation-based solutions were fine for passive experiences like watching 360 videos; but watching videos on a static shell suspended around a user has limited business applications. Six degrees of freedom allow for virtual environments that people can move through and interact with; the experiences actually feel real.

Position tracking technology has been around for decades in the form of movie industry motion capture rigs. Early virtual reality applications worked in similar ways with cameras, sensors, or other positioning devices placed around a room and carefully calibrated. Back when all VR systems required a top-of-the-line desktop computer, this wasn’t a big deal; a web of cables and accessories came standard with the experience.

"To leverage virtual reality in business, the experience has to be convincing."

In 2017, setting up a virtual reality system became much easier—Microsoft partners released a slew of headsets that had embedded cameras which could analyze the surrounding room on the fly and find natural landmarks to extrapolate their position in space. Inside-out markerless tracking was a tradeoff: effortless setup in exchange for decidedly inferior tracking quality. Over time, the tracking quality improved from rough to reasonable, and the dramatic reduction in cabling set the stage for a much more exciting development in 2019—the Oculus Quest, a standalone headset with no wires at all.

This decimated barriers to accessibility for VR technology. Users no longer needed a powerhouse computer, reducing the cost significantly; system setup became a matter of minutes rather than hours; and a lightweight, cordless device meant that headsets could be used almost anywhere. This substantial shift had monumental implications for business applications. Whether staff or client facing, the scale of big business typically mandates a fleet of headsets. Simply finding office space for ten cumbersome computer rigs made many VR applications unfeasible. A cheap and lightweight standalone headset put a world of possibility back on the table.

So in 2019, a divine light broke through the heavens and presented a virtual reality solution that put all previous offerings to shame. What is to stop this from happening again in 2022? From what I see in the next few years, the technology will continue to grow and develop in incremental upgrades.

For a virtual world to feel real, image quality matters. Like any other screen or monitor, VR headsets are constantly tweaking their screens to fit in more pixels, produce more vibrant colors, and improve contrast. Size also matters in head-mounted screens; many current headsets cut off the user’s peripheral vision a bit like wearing goggles. In the ephemeral world that is pursuit of realism, peripheral vision is surprisingly important.

The experience has to feel good. All wearables benefit from being lightweight, balanced, and breathable, but virtual reality can be uncomfortable in a different way. VR headsets have to react to movements and rotations so quickly that the user’s brain is genuinely tricked into thinking that the virtual world is unmoving. To pull off that illusion, the embedded screens have to update faster than your average television. A headset's refresh rate (the number of times the screen updates in a second) dictates a user's experience in an almost subliminal way; at 120 frames per second, moving through the space will "feel" buttery-smooth. At 60 frames per second, VR experiences may induce a motion-sickness-like discomfort. Updating the screen twice as much requires roughly twice as much processing power, so as computing technology progresses, we should see refresh rates creeping up.

Great controls make for great interaction. Any improvements in screen quality will be welcome but tangential to the overall experience of immersive, six degree of freedom VR. More interesting are the innovations in control systems. Hand tracked controllers foundationally changed the way users could interact with a virtual world. Those controllers have been a steady target for innovation; the Valve Knuckle controllers, for instance, use magnetic field detectors to approximate the exact position of the user’s fingers. The Oculus Quest uses its embedded cameras to extrapolate the wearer’s hand positions without controllers at all. The future of VR controllers will undoubtedly hold improvements in accuracy and ease use; however, a primary goal—to replicate the motions of a user’s hands—can already be reasonably accomplished.

This is a golden time for virtual reality; cheap, portable, easy-to-use systems can generate fully interactable worlds. The technology has been invented; the juggernaut has been unleashed. Over time, the systems will get better; but the bones of the experience are already fully realized and being used by forward thinking businesses everyday. For meeting clients, giving tours, or training staff, the best places are virtual places—and that’s everywhere.

About the Author: Joel Garcia is the Chief Information Officer and Co-Founder of PROJETO, LLC, based out of Washington, DC He has been creating virtual reality software and developing technological solutions since 2017, an uncanny alignment of his construction and coding backgrounds.


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